‘Tis the season to gain weight (or is it?)

By Aadam | December 9, 2021

Regardless of what you believe, there’s no denying that there’s something magical about this time of year––it’s a time for family, celebration, giving, and, of course, food.


From now until January, it’s just one big ‘ol food orgy. Events, social gatherings, more events, more social gatherings. 

All of this can feel, well, like this:

As a result, people either try to restrict their way through the holidays, hate every moment of it and piss off their friends and family. Or, they cultivate a sense of nonchalance towards their health and fitness: what I like to call the ‘FUCK THIS SHIT, IT’S THE HOLIDAYS, AND WE’RE GONNA EAT, DRINK, AND PARTY OUR STOCKINGS OFF’ mode.

Thankfully, there’s a third option. One where you can enjoy the next few weeks while maintaining your progress. We’ll get to that in a moment. But first–

Holiday weight gain: what does the research say?

Many studies have indeed found people gain weight during the holiday period.

Yanovski et al. measured body weight in 195 adults between mid-November to early or mid-January. They found participants gained an average of 0.37kg (0.8lbs). Aa

Reid and Hackett. (1999), Cook et al. (2012), and Stevenson et al. (2013) found an increase between 0.6–0.9kg (1.3–2lbs) during the holiday period.

A 2016 paper by Elina Helander and colleagues looked at weight gain data of almost 3000 people over the holidays in three countries––Germany, Japan, and the USA––and found an increase of 0.5kg, 0.6kg, and 0.8kg (1.1lbs, 1.3lbs, and 1.7lbs) respectively.

And a 2017 review by Díaz-Zavala and colleagues reported a gain of ~0.3–0.9kg (0.6–2lbs) between the last week of November to the second week of January.

However, only two of these studies (Yanovski and Helander) had a long-term follow-up. This is important because we don’t just want to know if people gain weight during the holidays, we also want to know if this weight is retained or lost in the months after.

Yanovski found the total weight gain over the entire year was 0.62kg (~1.3lbs). Helander found half of the weight was lost shortly after the holidays, while half of the weight gain remained until Summer and beyond.

On first reading this, it does seem like not only do people gain weight during the holidays, but some of that gained weight remains beyond the holiday period.

But context matters.

For instance, in the Yanovski paper, more than 85% of participants “made no effort to control their weight” and yet gained what I’d consider a negligible amount of weight over a 12-month timeframe.

And if we look at the Helander study, the weight retained by the American and German participants after the holiday period was a measly 0.3kg (~0.6lbs) and 0.4kg (0.8lbs), respectively.

Some may argue while this amount of weight gain might be considered negligible over a year, if left uncontrolled and extended over multiple years, it adds up to dozens of pounds gained. True. But here’s a counterpoint–

The results of these studies probably don’t apply to you

Unlike the participants in these studies, most of you are, to some extent, intentional about your health and fitness; you’re more likely to be conscious of your food intake and will continue to stay active in some form. These things will help inoculate you from any potential weight gain. Moreover, you’re the kind of person who’s more likely to get back on track once the new year rolls around.

That’s the important thing. It’s not what you do during the next two weeks that matters––it’s what you do after the holidays.

I’m not going to tell you to completely stop training and turn into a sloth for the next two weeks. I mean, you can if you want, but it’s probably better to continue training or to be active in some capacity (walking for the win) because, you know, health ‘n stuff. ⁣⁣⁣

I’m not going to tell you to be a complete asshole with your food intake just because it’s Christmas––again, you can if you want but learning how to enjoy food and drink sensibly is probably a good skill to cultivate. ⁣⁣⁣ ⁣

What I am going to do is remind you that what you do most of the time matters far more than what you do some of the time.⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣

Grid image showing blue coloured squares outnumbering red coloured squares

Instead of worrying about what you do (or don’t do) at Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween, your birthday or whatever, be more concerned about what you do on all the other days. ⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣

Because those other days are where you spend the majority of your life, and they’ll have a far more significant impact on your progress than the occasional day or two where you eat and drink more than usual. ⁣⁣⁣ ⁣⁣⁣

So enjoy this time of year with your friends and family and once the holidays are over, get right back on track.

Aadam, what the fuck is this inspirational bullshit––I need some real strategies

Alright then, I guess my quasi-uplifting speech above didn’t do the trick. Fine. Here are some tips for managing your intake over the next few weeks.

1. Normalise this month

December is no different to any other month. The only real difference is we tend to have more social gatherings. So treat December like a regular month, just with more events than usual. Meaning: on the days you’re not doing anything special, eat like you usually would for your current goal.

2. Write down all the events/parties/get-togethers you’re going to be having

This will give you an overview of the days you’re going to be doing something and the days you’re not.

3. ‘Diet days’ and ‘maintenance days’

Now that you have an overview of what your next few weeks look like, organise them into ‘diet days’ (days you’ll be eating per your goal as usual) and ‘maintenance days’ (days you’ll be eating more than usual).

Here’s an example:

On ‘maintenance days’, you’ll increase calories to maintenance. So let’s assume your intake on diet days is 1800 kcal and your maintenance intake is 2300 kcal––here’s what it would look like using the calendar above:

I’ve also included the daily average (the total weekly intake divided by 7).

As you can see, this hypothetical person is still in a deficit (their maintenance is 2300 kcal, and the average daily intake is below this amount).

Now, undoubtedly, even if you’re being diligent with your intake on maintenance days, there’s a chance you’ll go over.

But it still doesn’t matter. Even in very extreme cases where you eat a few hundred calories over maintenance on ‘maintenance days’, your daily average will still have you in a slight deficit. Worst case, you end up around maintenance.

4. Keep calories lower during the day on ‘maintenance days’

We still want to manage our daily intake as best we can on maintenance days to allow for more calories when we have social engagements.

Thus, the other meals leading into the main meal should be lower in calories and high in protein and fibre to help with satiety.

Important point: The goal here isn’t starvation––it’s satiation. And opting for lean protein and high-fibre foods will help with this.

5. Load up on protein and veggies 

Protein is the most satiating macronutrient. So by loading up on protein first, you’ll be more satiated and less likely to overeat. Protein is also unlikely to be directly stored as body fat––so even if you overeat on protein, the chances of that surplus leading to fat gain is minimal. Combining protein with veggies will help increase satiety.

6. Continue training 

Don’t use this time of year to slack off. Most gyms will be open, except a few days like Christmas and New Year, so there’s no reason to stop training altogether. And if you want to start, here’s a lil’ something: Gyms are going to be super empty this time of year, so you can go in and learn how to use the equipment and perform the exercises without feeling intimidated. Then, once January rolls around and the gym get busier, you’ll be a workout ninja.

Finally, remember what this time of year is really about. We put a lot of emphasis on food this time of year, which is fine. I’m not one of those dietary nut-jobs who runs around screaming, “EAT TO LIVE DON’T LIVE TO EAT”.

With that said, remember this time of year is about family and friends and appreciating what you have. So make that the emphasis of your celebrations.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this, you’d love Physiqonomics Weekly

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